In the future, benevolent eyes are Watching
|Hunter reached for the handle to the wooden door, and it warmed his hand, welcoming him home. There was no click of a latch, though, to unlock it. He pulled the door open, and stepped inside.
Juniper was there, sitting at the table. She looked up from the writing she was working on and her smile lit the room, a smile just for him. It emanated from her sapphire eyes, softened her cheeks, perfecting her beauty. She lifted a hand to brush away the hair that had strayed into her face, hair that strained to reach for her shoulders, almost as long as if she were a man. It suited her. He leaned over to brush a kiss on her lips.
“Honey, I’m home,” he quipped.
Her laugh was unguarded. It rang like little bells. “You and your job. You’re so proud of it, but I’m jealous: it takes you from me. I thought only Keepers and criminals had jobs, anyway. Which are you?”
Hunter shrugged, but ran his palm down her shoulder, then kneaded her back. “I’m not running the show, so I guess that makes me a criminal, but if so, they haven’t caught me yet. Call me a throwback, but I’m just not happy unless I get out and make something happen.”
“Heartless”, she whispered, but her eyes still glowed.
It was Hunter’s turn to laugh. “You like me that way.”
Juniper shook her head. “Idiot that I am. You rarely show up for football, you’re not concerned with your clothes, and you hardly take care of your hair. Why, you’re barely a man at all! How am I going to show you off to my friends?”
“Dance with me,” Hunter replied.
“Then you tell me what to do! So feminine.”
He stepped toward her, placing her hands in his own, and lifting her to her feet. She leaned into him as they began to step into the center of the room. They’d been together for almost two years now. Her friends would be talking, asking when she was going to move on already. His friend Dancer was already asking the same kind of questions, but her head was so comfortable on his chest. Some people still got married, of course. The thought flitted hopefully across his mind before he shooed it out. She had never asked about that, and you had to wait for a woman to ask.
“Sometimes you make we want to just stop taking the Prevention root”, Juniper murmured.
Hunter’s heart skipped a beat. People lived for centuries now, thanks to the wonders of genetic medicine. People still had children on occasion, but you had to apply to the Keepers for permission. Prevention root was free, one of the foods the Keepers gave away, and it turned off human reproduction - the business end, not the fun parts. “Oho! You’ve been hoping I was a Keeper.”
Juniper sighed, then ran a hand along his chest and stepped back. “Oh, why do they get a say, anyway? No, it’s just that you’re different. You act like you have a sense of purpose, like any of this means anything. It’s so old-fashioned, like you’re dangerous and safe all at the same time. It’s nice.”
Hunter frowned, uncertain. “What are you trying to tell me?”
She shook her head at him, like he was slow. “Take me to the bedroom, man! Do I have to spell it out for you?”
Hunter grinned and lifted her in his arms. This part of masculinity he could handle.
The walk to the city tower wasn’t far, only about half an hour, so there wasn’t any need to take transportation. It was rarely worth taking the tube for less than an hour of travel unless the weather was really bad, even for someone with the credits. Hunter was one of the few men who had them, though he didn’t like to use them. The isolation he felt from the other people lazily walking beneath the arbors of the city streets was different, better, than the separation from the better-dressed riders of the tubes.
Hunter chose to step inside, away from the touch of the wind and chirp of the birds, to enter the air-conditioned steel tower. This was the reward for his focus during the schooling of his youth, his eagerness to please his teachers and stay on past the mandatory five years, and his willingness to betray a friend who had stolen a book. He was permitted to use a tablet - sparingly, for they were known to be addictive - to dip into the experience of thousands of years of civilization, and to protect the near-paradise that had been made of a world almost lost. The tablet and this building were a taste of the old world, one with powers and responsibilities most men and women had laid down.
“Finally here, Hunter?” Waterthorn asked teasingly. She took her job seriously, but she was a good natured-soul, and quick with a joke when she wasn’t busy laying down the law.
Drawn from his reverie, Hunter smiled reflexively. He was expected to smile. “I’ll mark more this morning than half the people who have been here since dawn, and if anyone gives a more thorough report at the end of the day than when I leave, they can have my share of lager.”
Ivy Rose shook her head, flashing him a Pixie’s smile of her own. Her blonde hair was arranged in clever curls just past her ears, and there was pink bow settled in them, signaling that a man - probably she had a man in mind - was permitted to pay her a compliment and see where that would lead. “There’s no need for that, Hunter. You embarrassed us enough the last time. But you have been showing up later. That Greenie of yours has been keeping you very busy.”
Ivy would know, of course. That was her job, though Hunter tried to forget that outside of these doors. Hunter could walk outside them right now if he wanted, and leave this room behind. He could be just like almost everyone else, living for sun and drink, sport and sex. That and spending his time growing any food he wanted to eat outside of the free ever-present meal bars - thus the label Greenie. It was always a tempting choice sometimes, but it would be a permanent one. He was one of the Middle Servants, and they despised the Greenies as a rule, and kept themselves separate. It helped reduce the temptation.
Hunter raised his hands defensively. “Juniper is worth it. She may not have credits, but she’s different. She not just beautiful, but curious and talented. If her luck had been a little better, she might be here.
Ivy Rose grinned wickedly, though her tone sobered as she continued. “She has talents, I’ll give her that. And you take risks, but only the ones you can afford - it’s what makes you so good at what you do. Shacking up with a Greenie is a risk, but in the end, sex is harmless, really. Just be careful, Hunter: she is curious.”
Waterthorn interrupted Hunter’s worried frown, darting a sharp look at Ivy. “I’m sure she’s lovely, Hunter. Nobody’s saying you’re wasting your time with her. What about the family you’ve been watching, the throw-backs? You’ve been on them for weeks, and they still haven’t said anything worth following up on. Are you sure you’re not wrong about them?”
Hunter pursed his lips. “They’re too careful and they know too much. It’s hard to see what damage they can do without even a tablet, but there’s something funny about the video.”
Ivy Rose’s smile faded and she crossed her arms, waiting for Waterthorn to continue. The latter obliged. “The AI hasn’t flagged anything.”
Hunter’s face hardened as his mind brought the problem into focus. “No, it hasn’t. And I know that in theory we’re just here because we don’t want AI judging humans itself. It’s supposed to be capable of doing that, except that AIs exist to serve humans, and if we let it make the final decisions then it might be the other way around, like with the myTV rebellion. But the AI is wrong on this one. I can’t say why yet.”
Steely called over from the other side of the room, where he paced with tablet in hand and a soundbud wedged in his ear, “Of course you can’t. You’re still chatting up the boss instead of listening.”
Waterthorn frowned. “Well, I still think you’re chasing a dead end, but I’ll let you run it down a little longer.”
Hunter nodded gratefully. “Thanks. I wouldn’t mind being wrong about this one, even if I have been watching them for weeks. That’s one thing they don’t tell you about this job. Saving the world is all boredom and not a bit of glory.”
“Well, not all boredom,” Ivy murmured, knowing smile returning, and this time Waterthorn joined in.
Hunter’s face heated. “Right. Well, I’ll just get my tablet, then.”
Hunter stepped over to his desk and lifted a slim, metallic rectangle. Like this building, the tablet was at once modern and a relic from another age, one built on the extraction of iron, rare earths, copper, oil, and coal. Almost everything humans built now was made of wood, stone, and genetically engineered flora. The few mechanical conveniences such as his refrigerator were nearly entirely grown and shaped into high-density compostable plastics. Its bio-circuits were slow, and the muscles that ran the heat exchanger less powerful than his own arms, but they could be powered entirely by the thick-leafed chloroplast ivy that covered his roof. Only the oldest citizens remembered it had ever been different, and they were slowly forgetting. Despite everything modern medicine could do, the human mind was not meant to store centuries worth of memories.
“Hello, Al,” Hunter murmured. It had seemed a fitting name for an AI.
“Good morning, Hunter,” a crisp and confident female voice replied. Some chose a male persona, but most liked the sense of competence a feminine voice brought.
“So, what have the Andersons been up to?” Hunter continued.
As the computer worked up a reply, he tapped his fingers against the surface of the plastic screen, pacing slowly in front of his desk. A couple weeks back, the surveillance mics caught an engineer swearing against the Conclave, and Al sent an alert Hunter’s way. It turned out the engineer’s father had arranged a transfer down south to Austin some time back. The engineer himself, one Thunder Anderson, was given a transfer offer as well, but declined due to a recent marriage to a young woman who wanted to stay. Later, after a minor social incident involving his young child, Thunder asked to move to Austin too, only to find the city was no longer accepting transfers. Thunder had lost his temper at the time and said some unfortunate things about the Conclave, but they had decided he was probably harmless.
Hunter had been inclined to leave Thunder alone until a few more facts caught his eye. For one, the engineer had apparently taught his kid to read, and not just the approved material. His son Jove was learning the kind of history the Conclave didn’t teach, as well as about quite a bit of obsolete fossil ad extraction-based technology, which bordered on the forbidden. Worse, he was using an older model personal tablet to do it - one Thunder’s father had built himself, and so wasn’t subject to the usual restrictions - back when it was still legal to make that kind of thing. It was still legal to own almost any personal item that wasn’t a weapon, but since the Conclave owned all the mineral rights, all the technology, all the heavy tools, and all the robots and AIs, it didn’t have to take anything away from people - it just didn’t give them access in the first place. But Thunder’s tablet was grandfathered in.
Hunter’s thoughts were interrupted when Al finally gave an answer: a short video clip from one of the cameras growing in Jove’s room. Jove’s slightly cracked voice was raised in reply to some unknown question. “Why don’t you give me anything good to read? Nothing with a good plot, just stupid engineering and biology. And then the last book, what am I going to use that for? Seriously, a book about - ”
Thunder replied swiftly and insistently. “What have I told you? Not here.”
The video clip ended, and Al’s engaged his voice. “After this, the man and the boy spent the next several hours in the reading room, reading from a book about programming while his father read something on his tablet the cameras couldn’t pick up. The older models had polarized screens that don’t show up well in the cameras.”
Hunter shook his head. “Hmmmm. Several hours without moving? No pee breaks?”
“That’s right,” Al replied.
Hunter tapped his finger against his chin. Something was definitely wrong here, but what was he missing? “The diagnostics for the reading room check out?”
Al almost seemed offended. “Of course. There were no breaks in the video feed.”
Hunter sighed, running his fingers through his hair. Al didn’t seem to mind. “Who installed the cameras and the collector circuit, and when?”
The response took only a moment. “The cameras were grown last month. The collector circuit is older, dating back almost five decades to when the house was built. It was built and installed by John Anderson. It’s been maintained twice over that period, both times by Mr. Anderson. However, that should have been unnecessary. Mean time to failure for these circuits is estimated at over one hundred years.”
Hunter folded his arms. “Assessment, Al?”
“The Andersons are hiding something, but their history suggests it’s unlikely to be something dangerous. The most likely answer is that one of their books is contraband. I suggest low-grade surveillance, focusing on any books entering or exiting the house. Diagnostics of Thunder Anderson’s tablet show no functional errors, and its contents have been approved.”
“I don’t think so.” Hunter shook his head, paused, then tapped his desk rhythmically with his fingers. Then he turned on his heel and paced toward the door.
“Hey sunshine, where do you think you’re headed?” a voice asked from over his shoulder. Waterthorn.
Hunter smiled, glancing over his shoulder to see the dark-haired woman with arms across her chest. “Outskirts. Thunder needs a visit.”
Waterthorn frowned, and there was murmuring throughout the room. The Watchers watched, and they reported. If they found something rotten, they passed it on to the Watcher Council. The Council, with help of the Conclave Advisory Board, chose a response. If that response involved much more than a stern word, they called in the Enforcers - most of which were well-armored robots. Hunter had never heard of a Watcher dropping by to ask questions - not with all the tools they had available. But no one had ever told him he couldn’t.
“Do you need help?” Waterthorn asked.
“I shouldn’t,” Hunter replied after a moment.
Hunter’s boss looked down at her tablet and murmured a question, then met his eyes. “I’m not covering the tube fare.”
The Watcher breathed out a chuckle. “I’ll let you know what I find.”
Waterthorn smiled, looking over her shoulder at Ivy, who had joined her side and was examining Hunter quizzically. “We’ll be watching.”
Hunter stepped off the moving walkway, outside of the tubular tunnel, then glanced down again at the tablet in his hand. Up the stairs, then four blocks down and one to the right was the row house he was looking for. He had until then to figure out what he was going to do, what he was going to say. Thunder’s father John had been a bit of a rebel. Not all of the Conclaves within the Republic had initially given up the dream of cheap electricity, of larger, more powerful tablets for everyone, of dream-worlds made real by connections from those tablets to one’s very brain. Like the crime-ridden Liberty Cities a world away, they’d adopted Utopian view of men and women as gods, each imbued with unlimited power. Hunter laughed bitterly under his breath. Humans weren’t meant to live that way. Sure, a few prospered, but poor and marginalized people cried daily for entrance into the neighboring states. The Republic accepted only a trickle, carefully screened, into border cities designed for the task. Word was, many of those could not break their addictions, and returned broken to the “free” cities from which they had been cast out.
John Anderson hadn’t been willing to leave the Republic, but he had been looking for a middle way, a method to keep all the personal technology without restrictions. Hunter was allowed to read what he liked about history, psychology, and sociology, anything that improved his service. But most scientific and technical knowledge was kept from him, as too much knowledge was a dangerous thing for the human mind. He was allowed to watch recordings of his charges, but disclosing private information to anyone who was not a Watcher was severely punished. But once upon a time, videos had been made simply for entertainment, and electronics had been used to create games and simulations. Such abuse of privilege was now a swift invitation for a brain wipe. The cost of Hunter’s privileges was more than just a sense of isolation, it was temptation. Greenies were explicitly forbidden very little: mostly, they simply had no idea what they were missing, which was why so many Watchers hated them, probably.
John Anderson had rejected such restrictions, and for a time Conclaves like Austin had been loose with them. No longer. Records indicated John had been tossed out of the Republic for violating those rules, but records indicated Thunder had never been told. Communication outside of the Conclave was one of those restrictions that few Greenies were aware had ever been a possibility. But Thunder knew. As an engineer, he knew more about forbidden possibilities than Hunter could dream. That probably ate him up inside.
Hunter looked up to see a red brick rowhouse, number 227 on Apple Street. It was well kept, with well-polished windows and new-grown plastic still shining. The chloroplast was neatly trimmed, the fruits and vegetables neatly tended, and the hanging herbs looked beautiful. Jove’s mother might have moved on, Thunder might have little time for tending his own gardens like a Greenie, but he spent his credits well. Hunter knocked on the door.
“Hello?” A voice answered with little hesitation, and a face appeared behind the opening door. Thunder was tall, but wiry, and spoke with a nasal baritone that failed to live up to his name. His hair passed his shoulders, but his curls were unkempt, carelessly bound by a single cord.
The Watcher reached out his hand in greeting. “Thunder? My name is Hunter. This is a very nice house you have here.”
“Thank you,” the nasal voice replied patiently. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
Hunter gave his best grin. “My name is Hunter Price, and I work with the Watchers. Don’t worry, Mr. Anderson, you’re not in any trouble or I wouldn’t be here in person. I just have a few questions about your library. Our records aren’t up-to-date on what you have there, and the AIs claim that even though you bring a tablet home, you do most of your reading from paper.”
Thunder tensed visibly as Hunter introduced himself, but exhaled slowly at the Watcher’s reassuring smile, and most of that tension passed quickly. “Of course I do! Paper is one of the better carbon sequestration materials we have, and our production is getting more energy efficient every year. Besides, a book has a nice feel to it. Come in, Mr. Price. I’d be glad to show you my library.”
Hunter nodded his thanks and walked in. Just before leaving the office, Hunter had grabbed a small pouch from the supply cabinet and stuffed it into one of his pockets. He knew it was just in his mind, but he felt the weight of it heavy at his side. He’d never had to use its contents before - few people had, and when they did, they usually relied on a robot to employ them. But a robot might be seen, and Hunter couldn’t afford that. He thought.
Thunder showed him past the kitchen and sitting room, then passed into the library, a wall-to-wall collection of books, old and new. Hunter was impressed despite himself. While recorded fiction was forbidden, live and written fiction were encouraged so long as they were appropriate, or grandfathered in. This library contained dozens of books in the latter category. Moby Dick, The Bible, collections of ancient myth, tutorials on mathematics, and histories of the Americas were all here. Some of the books were rare, some only suited an engineer, and others might have made some Watchers nervous, but none looked truly dangerous. Hunter made a show of scanning a few covers with his tablet as he pored them over, but he doubted he would find anything troubling on the shelves. Of course, that wasn’t why he was here.
Hunter was able to summon genuine warmth as he continued to investigate.“This is a truly excellent collection, Thunder. How long did it take you to collect?”
The other man chuckled. “Generations, and I’m still at it. Printouts from the Central Library are pretty good, but - “
Thunder shrugged, and so Hunter completed the thought. “They’re not the same. These are ancient, some of them, but in excellent shape. Ah, Ivanhoe - that was considered a bit racy, not long ago. This is wonderful, enough to make me jealous.”
The engineer smiled genuinely. “Thank you. If you like these, I know a guy who transcribes there, and binds them in a rather authentic-looking leather substitute. Tell him I sent you. I sit in here and read these with my son for hours on end.”
That was certainly what the cameras showed. Thunder continued. “But ah, let me show you my poetry! Here’s some Edna St. Vincent Millay, and below that, Whitman and Dylan Thomas.”
As Thunder leaned forward to reach for the last, Hunter reached into his pocket to lift a couple specks from the pouch hidden there, and dropped them to the floor. It took an effort of will not to watch them unroll, to sprout legs and crawl the room, looking for hidden crevices. He met the engineer’s eyes, though, and did not look down.
“I have to say, I’m impressed. Too few people have time for reading the classics any more. Rage, rage against the dying of the light! No wonder you and your son like to read here. I would too. It’s only a shame that we’re restricted to reading on a tablet more than a few hours a day. There’s only so much you can find in print these days.”
Thunder returned a cautious glance. “Well, that’s only good sense. It’s a small price to pay for good mental and physical health, and so many more days to spend it than they had in the old days. Which is your favorite, though?”
“May I?” Hunter asked.
At Thunder’s nod, Hunter carefully lifted a copy of the “The Lord of the Rings”, and began to read aloud of the anticipation of Bilbo’s Birthday party. Thunder smiled approvingly. “Have a seat! Would you like some tea?”
“I would love it,” Hunter replied, and eased into a vary comfortable upholstered chair as Thunder jaunted toward the kitchen.
As soon as the engineer stepped out of sight, though, Hunter yanked the small tablet from his pocket and examined the screen. Strange - he had lost connection with the servers, which meant diagnostics of the home’s cameras were failing to run. The bugs he had released, though, seemed to have found something, a small crack in the floor, hidden beneath a second layer of wooden planks. Underneath was a secret room! And the chemical sensors in the bugs were reporting something odd. They were meant to detect drugs, but they had found something their limited memories couldn’t recognize. But why couldn’t his tablet connect? And if it couldn’t, why did the cameras in the library work?
Hunter closed the book and stood, walking up to the window, and examining the old-fashioned metal mesh that acted as a bug screen. He followed it with his fingers, and noted that it extended into the wall. Odd. It was if he were standing in a metal cage…
At the sound of footsteps, Hunter re-opened the book. What was going on here?
Thunder offered a small cup of tea, keeping a second for himself. Hunter sipped it gingerly at first, but it was excellent. “It’s nice to find a fellow bookworm, but I’m surprised they let you stay here and read during the day,” Thunder offered.
“The tea is wonderful. But you’re right, I really shouldn’t,” Hunter said. That was true, of course. Now that he’d found the secret room, the Watchers had reason to investigate. Whatever the man was hiding, the Watchers’ Council would discover it. But Hunter realized that he really, really wanted to know. If he left now, chances were that the Council would take over the case, transfer the access, and he would be kept from the mystery forever.
Thunder looked relieved as he stood by the door, hands behind his back. “I’ll forgive your indulgence if they will.”
“You really should stop by again some time,” he added, though Hunter knew he was hoping that would never come to pass.
Hunter carefully placed the book he held onto a reading table and turned to go. He was never quite sure why he chose that moment to speak. “So Thunder, what’s in the basement below the library?”
Thunder grimaced and looked down, then flicked his right hand from behind his back and thrust it it forward with nearly blinding speed. Hunter jumped and twisted, startled, before his mind even begun to access the situation. It saved his life. Instead of being disemboweled, he suffered only a thin, sharp cut to his side.
Hunter kicked reflexively as Thunder pulled back the knife for another try, connecting with a shin and halting the attacker’s forward rush. It slowed him enough for Hunter to back away, as Thunder cursed and adjusted his handle on the knife.
“They’ll see you!” Hunter blurted.
Thunder grimaced, advancing slowly forward, knife raised. “In this room, they’ll see what my AI wants them to see. They’ll come looking for you, though, and that’s a problem. I have to let the virus out tonight, damn you.”
“What virus?” Hunter asked, somehow curious despite the paralyzing terror.
Thunder answered with a knife, but he was too slow. Hunter dodged away, trying to ignore the growing pain in his side and the blood that dampened his shirt. The engineer followed, pressing his advantage. Hunter had nowhere to go. He kicked out again, and Thunder sliced at his leg, just managing to nick the calf.
The Watcher fell backward, and his arm shot out, steading himself against the table, the large hardcover book sliding slightly against the wood. He lifted it up with his left hand, holding it forward like a shield. Thunder frowned, but stabbed forward again. Hunter clumsily deflected the knife with the book.
Angered, Thunder charged forward, bowling into him, and tried to stab downward. With his right hand, Hunter somehow grasped the other man’s wrist. With his left, he shoved the thick hardbound copy into Hunter’s face, distracting him long enough, to his shame, to bring the hand holding the knife towards his mouth, and set his teeth into it. Thunder cursed, just as the taste of arm hair and sweat began to register. Dropping the book, Hunter reached his second hand for the knife and shoved it upward, landing the pommel straight on his opponent’s nose, causing him to stagger back and lose his grip on the knife. Hunter wrested it from him triumphantly, baring his teeth in a rictus.
Hunter straightened while his opponent looked on anxiously. His side hurt like hell. With the knife, Hunter could back away now. He could escape and let the Enforcers handle all of this. But he didn’t. He waited for long moments, thinking, though he began to feel dizzy as the adrenaline faded. What was that virus?
Suddenly, Jove burst through the door. “Dad, what in hell?”
Thunder leaped forward, grasping for the knife, and Hunter desperately struck out, but Jove had come between them, and the knife entered his chest.
All three began to fall, but Hunter somehow managed to scramble away as Jove yelled out in pain, and Thunder in sympathetic anguish. Hunter scrambled back, and Jove held a hand hard against his mangled rib. Thunder looked between one and the other as he scrambled to his feet, pain, worry, and rage warring for control of his face.
“He needs a doctor,” Hunter yelled out. “Let me call a doctor.”
Thunder raised his hands as if to strike, then slumped, staring at his son. “Call, then. You win. Your tablet will work outside the library.”
Hunter backed away slowly through the door, knife raised high. “Al?”, he said.
“Call a doctor right now. Someone has been stabbed. And while you’re at it, let Waterthorn and Ivy know I was right. Thunder was going to release some kind of virus. Computer or biological, I don’t know, but we need Enforcers here ASAP.”
“Sending,” Al replied in a businesslike tone.
Through the door, Thunder cradled his moaning son, muttering futile encouragements. “Hold on, son. They’re coming. You’ll be ok. You’ll be ok. Oh God, I screwed up. They’re coming.”
Hunter pressed the bloodied fabric of his shirt to his own side. “I sure hope you’re right.”
Hunter leaned against the door for a moment, then checked his side. The bandage was holding, though his shirt and pants were done for. The Enforcers had arrived in less than half an hour, bringing a physician and an engineer. It hadn’t taken long for the physician to patch Jove up, and then she’d moved on to him. She was good at her job. It looked like Jove would be fine in time, barring whatever the Conclave decided to do to him.
The engineer had gone over the library with a fine-toothed comb, and it hadn’t taken her long to figure out how John Anderson had rigged up an AI filter for the library cameras, one smart enough to mostly pass on what was going on in the room, minus any violence, forbidden conversations, or anything regarding the secret door to the basement. However, it kept a day’s worth of the originals, more than enough to confirm Hunter’s story. The Enforcers had neither needed nor wanted him in the room after that, and the Conclave had classified any new details regarding the Andersons as secret. Hunter was allowed to report what he’d found so far to Waterthorn, but that was that. After a handshake and a thank-you, they’d sent him on his way.
He’d commed Waterthorn, of course, with what he knew. Her shock was gratifying, as well as her gracious decision to pay for his tube fare, after all. She’d congratulated him, and then urged him to take the rest of the day off. There had been something odd about her tone, but that could wait for tomorrow, once he’d had a chance to sleep.
Hunter reached for the door to find it unlocked once more. Juniper was here. Hunter was at once grateful and unsure. It seemed she barely went home anymore. Ivy Rose had told him he should move on, but maybe this relationship was getting serious. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that. But maybe, just maybe, he felt… good.
“Hello, my dear,” he called, as he stepped through the door.
There she was, wearing a smile of pleasant surprise and a long pink shirt. “Home so early! But oh, whatever happened to you? Are you hurt?”
“It’s not bad,” Hunter shrugged.
Juniper’s expression shifted to concern, and stayed there. “Oh, we have to get you out of those! But I thought you told me you weren’t an Enforcer. Don’t tell me this happened on the way home!”
Hunter shook his head. “No, I’m not an Enforcer. But something went wrong today, seriously wrong. I don’t expect it will happen again. I’m sorry. I can’t say more than that.”
“Well,” she replied, and wrapped her arms around herself.
Hunter stepped toward her, and gingerly moved to hold her. “Hey, I’m alright. Everyone involved is going to be fine, even the bad guys.”
“There were bad guys?” she asked, leaning her forehead into his shoulder.
“Yeah, or at least one of them. Not at all nice. I only went there to talk,” he said.
She nodded. “I hope you kicked his ass, then.”
He gave her shoulder a squeeze. “Count on it. And no more, I said!”
Suddenly, she giggled. “Good. I thought you government types were all secretive, but you’re terrible at it. You’d make a terrible Watcher.”
“Yeah,” he said.
She cuddled further against him. “Good, because I despise Watchers, and I love you.”
“I love you too,” he said. It felt right, despite the lie.
“You do?” she asked, looking up to search his eyes.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Well, isn’t that something?” she murmured, placing a hand on his chest.
Despite his aches, Hunter pulled her tight. He wasn’t going to move for days. “It sure is.”
Morning came with a knock on the door, followed by a stern voice. “Enforcers. May we speak?”
Disentangling himself from the blankets, Hunter lurched to his feet, pulled on some pants, and threw on a shirt as fast as he was able. “One moment,” he called out in response.
Behind him, Juniper sat up in bed, eyes wide. “What do they want?”
Hunter shook his head, then opened the door from the bedroom. “I don’t know. Hopefully, this is about yesterday and they just have some questions.”
“Yesterday?” she asked, pulling the blanket around herself and looking around the room.
Hunter didn’t pause to answer, but headed out to the front of the apartment. He opened the door slowly to a tall woman, and even taller man. He recognized them immediately. “I apologize for the delay. May I help you?”
It was the woman with the buzz cut who replied. “Most likely not, Mr. Vance. Thank you for yesterday. That was, well it was more important than you know. We apologize, but we’re not here for you. Please, send the lady to the door.”
“Juniper?” he asked.
“Juniper,” the Enforcer replied.
For a moment, all he could do was stare into her charcoal eyes. He thought he saw sympathy there, but little patience. How many times had she had conversations like this? A Conclave official was supposed to be firm, to understand that it was sacrifice to the great good that had tamed global warming, staved off utter ecological destruction, and ended millennia of war. But this was Juniper, and she hadn’t done anything. “But why?”
“You know that’s not how this works, Watcher,” she replied. Yes, she had done this before.
“Watcher?” a voice spoke up behind him. She sounded hurt and lost.
The Enforcer’s voice was cool. “Miss, you need to come with us. We need to talk to you about some of the things you’ve been writing.”
Juniper’s own blue eyes were watery. “Writing? But that was nothing. I mean, I haven’t hurt anyone. Those were just stories for sharing with the girls. Hunter, please, don’t let them take me.”
Hunter’s chest hurt, and his breath came hard, but somehow the words still came. “Honey, there’s nothing I can do.”
“You did this, Hunter. Watchers do this,” she said, eyes suddenly aflame.
“I - no, Juniper. I don’t know what you mean.”
Juniper gestured to Enforcers. “I didn’t do anything. What did he tell you?”
The Enforcer shook her head. “It’s not my business to know, unless you want to to tell me. If you’re telling the truth, I’m sure you’ll be back with your boyfriend in no time.”
Juniper gave her a withering look, then turned to him. “No. Not after you’ve done this. I’m innocent, you piece of shit Watcher. I don’t care what you told them.”
Hunter closed his eyes. “I didn’t tell them anything. I don’t know anything to tell.”
“And you’re just going to let them take me?” she asked, her voice suddenly breaking.
His eyes opened, and his mouth worked for a second, and the Enforcers stared at him. Why were they staring? Juniper lips were curled in a snarl. “Goodbye. I love you.”
“Liar,” she spat. “Piece of shit,” she said, and let the Enforcers place restraints on her arms. Then they were gone.
Hunter sat at his kitchen table, lifting a glass of red wine by the stem, staring into its depths. He moved it to his lips as if to drink, then lowered it in disgust. The last three glasses hadn’t helped. Why would this one?
Waterthorn had given him yesterday off, but he was due today. Would they let him go if he failed to show up? Would they make him a Greenie after all the years he had worked not to be like his useless, absent father? He hoped they did, just so he could tell them all to fuck off. If he asked for the day off, would they give it to him? Probably. But how could he ask? How could he trust himself, if he spoke to them now, not to end up wherever they took Juniper?
His tablet buzzed again, and he looked over at it in disgust. Screw them all.
Then a moment passed of staring into his hands, and another, until they all blended together into hours. He needed to eat. He needed to pee. He lifted the tablet and glanced at the screen.
There was a message from Waterthorn. “Hunter, I’m so sorry. I know how hard this must have been for you, after all you’ve done. Take the week off. You’re a good man, and a good Watcher, and we don’t want to lose you. Please call if you need anything.”
Fuck them. His eyes scrolled down.
There was another message, just below. “I’m sorry. I wanted to warn you, so many times. But you know the rules, and I can’t tell you anything. You’ve been there too, a dozen times before. Just not with a friend, and neither have I. All I can say is I told the truth, and I did the best I could for her, and for you. But you must have guessed that. You’ll probably never forgive me. I know that. I’m sorry. But if there’s anything I can do, except telling you what you really want to know, please just call me, anytime. Ivy.”
Hunter downed the last glass, relieved himself of the three other glasses, and crawled into bed. He knew he’d be alright in time. But not tonight.